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Meeting With Muslims: Is Dialogue Growing?

EVERYONE in these United States over the age of 10 has something to say about the events of September 11, 2001. We can read, rage, mourn, puzzle, debate and argue about those events—at great length. It is often a very circular conversation around the dinner tables with our own kith and kin. Not enough of us engage with the Muslim community—or do we? St. Anthony Messenger did a random sampling to gain a handle on Catholic engagement with Muslims coast to coast. It’s not necessarily a hot trend, but those who have actually met their Muslim neighbors feel engaged, respectful, inspired and—more often than not—enthusiastic.

Practicing Diplomacy on a Minnesota Campus

Antanina Ricceri, a university student, wants to be a career diplomat. At the time of this online interview, Nina is on campus at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. There, she serves as student representative on the board of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center (MCDC).

The MCDC sponsors speakers, publications, a Web site, curriculum offerings and dialogues—one in the local community and another among students. Nina is actively involved in the latter. Why?

“I know that our relations with Muslim countries are often complicated and sometimes there are misunderstandings. I like to think that I am practicing for my future career by acting as a diplomat for God. I have learned that we have much more in common with Muslims than most Christians know.”

Nina brings a lot to the table. She is president of the Middle Eastern Studies Club, secretary of the Foreign Affairs Club and an International Student Ambassador. Catholic herself, most of her education has been in Catholic schools, she says, “so I was used to most people having the same beliefs as I do. I think it is important to be able to talk about religion with people who
have totally different ideas.”

Nina relishes the opportunity not only to talk with Muslims, but also to share their celebrations. Last fall, she was invited by the Muslim Student Association to participate in their Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) celebration.

“The Eid celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s request,” Nina explains. “This was a perfect opportunity to discuss the similarities between our religions, since it is a story that we share. It made me think a lot about what I am willing to sacrifice for God.”

Is Antanina Ricceri changed by her conversations with her Muslim counterparts? Yes, she says.

“Challenging my beliefs has made my relationship with God stronger. There are practices in Islam which Christians could benefit from observing. For example, we would benefit from setting aside special times of the day for prayer.” She concludes, “We should show more reverence to our holy book.”

Book Burnings Provoke Prayer

While the Minnesota student was gaining reverence for holy texts, a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, was preparing to burn copies of the Quran.

Last year’s September 11 remembrances were marred by Terry Jones, senior pastor of Dove World Outreach Center, who threatened to burn a copy of the Quran. (Though that event was canceled, Jones’s assistant oversaw a later burning, which led to deadly demonstrations in Afghanistan.)

Gainesville is located in the Diocese of St. Augustine. Bishop Victor Galeone, now retired, expressed his dismay over the original threats in a letter he urged parishes to either read from the pulpit or publish in the Sunday bulletin. The bishop’s letter was also published in The Gainesville Sun.

The letter stated, “Members of our faith community should consider the proposed desecration [of the Quran] reprehensible….The proliferation of negative stereotypes in the media, distorted information, and caricatures of Muslims and other faith traditions must be addressed at every level.”

St. Anthony Messenger interviewed Father Roland Julien, pastor of St. Patrick Church, Gainesville’s oldest Catholic parish, who coordinated Catholic response to the original threatened burning and subsequent actions by Dove World’s leaders. The veteran pastor says, “The city and county people recommend playing it [Dove World’s actions] down.” Believing that the fundamentalist pastor thrives on publicity, “they say not to mention his name.”

Father Julien continues to propose inclusion of Prayers of the Faithful for Catholic churches in his deanery, prayers which encourage tolerance, understanding and goodwill. He repeatedly said that this Quran-burning pastor is “not a true minister of the gospel.”

Father Julien has been part of a delegation taking petitions to Jones’s church. He pointed out that membership at Dove World has declined from a high of 200 to about 30, a number corroborated by The Gainesville Sun.

The members of Dove World have protested at the Islamic Center of Gainesville, where a Muslim spokesperson told WJXT-TV of Jacksonville, Florida, that he would not even comment because he didn’t want to grant credibility to the group, which he called a cult. And that mirrors the manner of Catholic response.

Father Julien asserts that the Catholic position is to treat not only Muslims with respect, but also this man, who is not even to be named. He’s “not respecting other people,” says Father Julien, but the Catholics of Gainesville intend to pray him away, not meet his violent words and actions with a like
response. In this, they are joined by area Muslims, despite international outrage.

Multiple Dialogues Active in Los Angeles

It’s not only Gainesville renegades who can imperil Christian-Muslim dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI unintentionally created an international furor five years ago this month with his address at the University of Regensburg. He apologized within days, but the ripple effects included violence as well as many questions from Islamic believers everywhere.

Msgr. Alexei Smith, interreligious officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, says Muslims in L.A. and its environs expressed dismay. Longstanding relationships established by his predecessor, Msgr. Royale Vadakin, however, kept the conversation civil.

A phone call from a Muslim leader led to a meeting between representatives of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and Cardinal Roger Mahony, then head of the archdiocese, together with Msgr. Smith.

“We then issued a joint statement to the press (secular, Catholic and Muslim) and the cardinal was invited to address a large Muslim gathering.” Msgr. Smith actually spoke on the cardinal’s behalf, and “something that could have been quite negative became a learning experience for both Catholics and Muslims. But we wouldn’t have been able to do that if we didn’t have that foundation of relationship,” explains Msgr. Smith.

In an April phone interview, Msgr. Alexei described at least a dozen ways in which the Catholic Church of Los Angeles initiates and preserves energetic exchanges with Muslims. These initiatives go both ways, he says.

Mount St. Mary’s College and Loyola Marymount University both attract large numbers to their programs. A Christian-Muslim consultative group has prepared a seven-session study guide, complete with DVD support, to engage smaller groups.

Msgr. Smith says that this new program calls for equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. St. Paul Parish in Westwood, California, has already attracted 25 participants for the program’s debut. Muslims sponsor Open Mosque Day, for which Msgr. Smith recorded a radio invitation to area Christians.

As vice president of the national Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers (CADEIO), Msgr. Smith is also active in regional and national efforts. In fact, it was Milia Islam-Majeed, director of the South Coast Interfaith Council, who when asked for contacts said, “Talk to Father Alexei!”

Msgr. Smith described the West Coast Regional Muslim-Catholic Dialogue, one of three such annual meetings sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which dialogues on theological topics of importance to both faith traditions.

Isn’t that rather scholarly? “Only if we allow it to stay in the room,” says Msgr. Smith, who obviously does no such thing. He ticks off parishes inviting Muslims to interfaith prayer services, Lenten series addressing topics of mutual interest to Muslims and Catholics, and joint stands and statements on abortion and same-sex marriage. “They [Muslims] certainly resonate with us [Catholics] on those issues.

“I think that many of our Catholic people have a tainted view of Islam because of what they read and view in the secular media. It’s a great challenge now for the Catholic Church to step forward and explain to our people that the Muslims in this country now are where Catholics were some years ago, being held up as suspicious and not fully American,” says Msgr. Smith.

“We’re trying to reestablish a Muslim-Catholic women’s dialogue, whereby women of both faiths would learn about each other and from each other,” Msgr. Smith adds.

“We have a thriving Jewish-Catholic dialogue, which has been going on for over 30 years, and I think the women would like to pattern themselves on that. They [Catholic and Jewish women] meet once a month and they put together a public event each year.”

Catholic-Muslim women’s groups also meet in other parts of the United States. Chicago and Milwaukee are known for their active groups, begun and sustained by women.

Women Connect and Quilt in Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia, has also been the site of women’s engagement in interreligious dialogue, begun out of an interreligious family.

Judy Ellestad Sayed, a Minnesotan Catholic, has been married to Dr. Hamdy Sayed, a Muslim, for 41 years. Asked in a phone interview how the couple bridges their differences in belief, Judy says, “I don’t even know that I would agree with the term different beliefs. Our emphasis is on the two great commandments of love.”

Judy believes that the main thing holding Catholics back from friendship and dialogue with Muslims (and vice versa) is fear. She and her friend Rhonda Miska heard that fear expressed by fellow Catholic parishioners. They took action. Judy asked Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, to identify women from the Islamic Center of Central Virginia who might be interested in interreligious dialogue.

Judy and Rhonda discovered that women from the mosque “were equally dismayed by the polarization that had been created between followers of the two faiths,” Rhonda reports. They decided to create a space where knowledge and friendship could grow, before launching more formal discussions. When they felt comfortable, the group addressed topics such as gratitude, pilgrimage, forgiveness, Jesus, Mary, prayer and concern for the poor.

Rhonda, now pursuing her master’s degree at Boston College, wrote a case study about the Charlottesville women’s group. She quotes one Muslim woman, “I had the fear that everyone would try to convert me, but the more we are together, the less I have that fear. We share so many values, and the spiritual connection is the same.”

The group, whose membership ebbs and flows with the university population and refugees brought in by the International Refugee Committee (IRC), is currently on hiatus. Judy believes that its next incarnation will be more proactive. “Because there’s so much Islamophobia, we need to educate,” she says.

Rhonda’s study indicates that the group has always had a penchant for action. They have made quilts for refugees, given financial support to women survivors of war, spoken at both Muslim and Christian events and sponsored an educational evening called “Know Your Neighbor, Love Your Neighbor.” Over 100 women attended. Rhonda reflects, “By focusing on service instead of doctrinal differences, the group has been successful in creating common ground.”

Common ground is where Judy and her husband, as well as residents of Charlottesville, have found enrichment, challenge and peace. “I really feel that getting to know people of other cultures and their attributes, their holiness, their love of God, has enriched my life beyond measure.”

What About Your Own Muslim Neighbor?

“Let us commit ourselves to know individual Muslims personally that, like Jesus, we may call the other ‘friend.’” This is the final sentence of “Remembering September 11th,” a brief document
issued by Catholic leaders in interreligious dialogue (CADEIO). The document prompts—as it surely intends—a search for a Muslim neighbor.

An Internet search reveals that the local Islamic Center (closest to me) is tucked behind a cluster of offices and shops in Florence, Kentucky. Men spill out its doors after the traditional Friday observances. One is dressed in flowing white. “I am Joseph. How may I help you?” he says in welcome.

Joseph Dabdoub, one of the center’s leaders (imams), agrees to meet later in the week. At a local coffeehouse, we talk for hours. Joseph’s laptop is open to quran.comfor constant reference. His enthusiasm and eloquence about Islam are inspiring. Questions flow. His answers about Muslim belief and practice are detailed and colorful.

Questions about Dabdoub himself are downplayed, but Joseph does reveal that he has two young adult sons, who both graduated from the local Catholic elementary school “for the morals,” he explains. If he were invited to a Catholic home, he would appreciate two things: no pork and no alcohol.

Do they have any holiday customs? Joseph’s family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. It seems so material and commercial, he observes. “The gift that you should give is doing supplications for your neighbors, giving to charity, feeding the hungry, improving the situation.” He adds, “We don’t even celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.”

The Islamic Center has acquired property for a larger, more traditional mosque. When this was announced last summer, an anonymous anti-mosque flier appeared on local doorsteps and an extremist Web site railed against Muslim plans for “world domination.”

Joseph Dabdoub is unperturbed, citing a lot of “non-Muslim support.” He expected no less. “That’s the American way. We should always be proud to be Americans. I have the best of both worlds,” he says.

As Joseph closes the online Quran, he continues to speak what it has taught him: “Islam is a religion of peace and love. We believe that whoever kills one innocent person it is as if he had killed all humankind. And if you rescue one human being, it is as if you have rescued all humans on earth. Think of us as brothers….Islam itself was hijacked by the terrorists. The religion itself is pure and sound.”

This September 11, Joseph Dabdoub will pray, as he does five times every day, prayers of praise, of thanks and of peace. To that, Catholics can surely say Amen.


U.S. bishops’ Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs